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The following is a excerpt from an interview script on Linux Journal:

Guid: ... If you talk to people, they all think Windows stinks and UNIX is the one true operating system.

Phil: I think that too!

Guido: Well, you better, given your choice of profession!

Note: Phil is working for Linux Journal.

What does "you better" mean in this context? Is it omitting some part from its full phrase?

5 Answers 5

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I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about this idiom. It’s very common, and yet it’s really quite a strange one!

Plain meaning: “ought to”

When I say that “you better” do something, I mean that it is what you ought to do. There is a strong expectation that you will do it.

The idiom is used in reference to a verb. In your example, the verb and its object (“think that”) are left off, since it was just stated and doesn’t need to be repeated. So yes, part of the full sentence has been omitted.

Connotation: “or else!”

Very often, it implies that there will be some negative consequence if the expectation is not followed. The speaker might be making a threat, or they might be asserting that a consequence will happen naturally. They might be serious, or be saying it in jest.

What that consequence is may be vague, as it is here. If Phil doesn’t think that Windows stinks and Unix-like OSs are superior, the consequence might be:

  • Guido will be disappointed, or feel like his view of the world is shaken.
  • Phil gets into trouble with his employer.
  • The audience of Linux Journal complains long and loudly.

Other forms and examples

“You better” is a shorter alternative to “you’d better”, which in turn is a contraction of “you had better”. All three are fine, though in my experience, the uncontracted form is much less common.

It doesn’t have to be the second-person pronoun “you”. I can say that “I’d better get some sleep”, or that “Mike better not lose his hat”. The subject can even be left out, in casual use: “It’s late. Better start packing.”

It’s also commonly used with “best” rather than “better”, as in, “You’d best get on with your homework.” There may be a geographic element to which one is more common, but I don’t have any data on that.

While thinking of examples I could cite, for some reason my memory kept bringing up song lyrics that use this idiom. There are quite a lot of them! Here’s a selection from across several decades.

You better not shout, better not cry

You better not pout, I’m telling you why

— Coots & Gillespie (1934), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town

You best be believing

I won’t be deceiving my guy

— Mary Wells (1964), My Guy

That’s why I tell you

You’d better be home soon

— Crowded House (1988), Better Be Home Soon

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks

You better run, better run, outrun my gun

— Foster the People (2010), Pumped Up Kicks

Bitch better have my money

Pay me what you owe me

— Rihanna (2015), Bitch Better Have My Money

The grammar

“Better”, of course, is the comparative of “good” (and “best” is the superlative). I think it’s being used here as an adverb, though, so it’s a form of “well” instead.

So, it seems that the literal meaning is, “You would do (more) well if you chose this action.” But the grammar is still weird. Why “had better [+ infinitive]”? Is it a subjunctive? An imperative? I don’t know!

And why “better” at all? The phrase is used in a context where one alternative is bad. It’s not a case of “this is good, but that is better”.

(On the other hand, the variation between “better” and “best” is easy to understand. If there are only two options, and one is better than the other, then it’s also the best of the two.)

In the end, I think I had better just see it as a fixed idiom, another oddity of English, or else I might be puzzling over it for hours yet.

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    On the topic of better--it doesn't seem to need any of the outcomes to be good. "Things will go better for you if you just admit that you were wrong and beg forgiveness." "Spraining your ankle jumping out of the way is better than getting hit by a car." "You'd better just face the music." Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 22:47
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    @user3067860 go better (where better is an adverb) and subject + better are completely different idioms. Amongst linguists the latter instance of better is considered an auxiliary verb. Lastly in your X is better than Y example, you are using the adjective better, not the adverb or the verb. Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 12:06
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    Formally, "best" would be appropriate in cases of multiple options. There might be a lot of things you could do at 1:00 am, but you'd best go to bed; but I don't really think this is the thinking behind it, as it's always a conceptual binary decision: good to do this, bad to not do this. As mentioned, I associate "you['d] best" with certain regional or folksy U.S. usage, and "you'd better" as more widespread.
    – CCTO
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 23:22
  • @CCTO I agree about the binary: do, or do not (as a certain wise Muppet once said). Mostly “do = better, do not = worse”, but I just thought of an example (more lyrics!) with “better not”, so I’m going to add that. Can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner… Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 3:33
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"You better," or "you had better," is an idiom meaning, "You ought to," or, "You should."

You better take out the trash, it's overflowing!

She better be a good volleyball player, since she's the team captain.

It had better not rain tomorrow; I'm planning to picnic.

BTW, "You'd best," or "You had best," might be heard more frequently in some regions.

You'd best bring a brolly, because the Beeb broadcast it'll be bit of a dibble.

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    'Dibble' is a new one on me ;) Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 7:34
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    'You better' is, surely, a contraction of 'you had better'? Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 12:13
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    @Tetsujin, It's Shropshire, lad. countrylife.co.uk/nature/… . We used it in my house, man. Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 14:45
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    +1 for that beauty of an alliteration. :-)
    – Pablo H
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 13:28
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    @MichaelHarvey, Yes, and "You had better" is still an idiom that needs explanation. Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 16:58
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I think it's a shortened form of "You had better do ...." in reference to whatever was under consideration or discussion just prior to that utterance. (Possibly even "You would be better off in the future if you ....".) I think it is more emphatic, parental, and possibly even mildly threatening because it carries an implication of negative consequences should there be failure to act in the manner previously discussed.

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It is a contracted form of "you'd better", which in turn is a contraction of "you had better". It means "you ought to" or "your should do", so in this conversation it means that Phil ought to think that "UNIX is the one true operating system" because he works for Linux Journal.

It tends to be used in a more informal or jokey sense than "you ought to" or "you should". It can also be used in a slightly threatening sense, e.g. "you'd better not tell him" with an implied threat of negative consequences if the listener doesn't comply.

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My understanding is that "you better [think that Windows stinks...]" was said as a confirmation from Guido that he already assumed that's what Phil would think of Windows vs UNIX debate, and Guido bases his assumption upon Phil being employed by Linux Journal. This assumption is reinforced by two implied facts: (1) Linux is considered to be an UNIX-like OS, and (2) Linux fans, including myself, are known to criticize Windows for not being Linux.

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    This doesn't answer the question, which asked why you better was used as opposed to anything else.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 15:19
  • @Chenmunka No, but it does give a bit more context for the specific usage that was left out of other Answers. Hence I think it has some value (even it may have been better as a comment).
    – trlkly
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 18:33
  • It must be another question you're talking about. I don't see a "why" there. Just the actual meaning in this context. Literally "you better" is an advice, but other answers didn't really address that what is actually meant is "that's what I (Guido) would expect of you".
    – Fuxseb
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 7:38

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